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Kathy Bates seems stiff, distant in ‘Harry’s Law’


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‘Fairly Legal’ ★★★

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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

If you’re going to make a show about a lawyer, you’d better have a gimmick.

That’s because there already have been shows about lusty L.A. lawyers (“L.A. Law”), flamboyant Vegas defense lawyers (“The Defenders”), mentally unstable Boston lawyers (“Boston Legal”), a Chicago lawyer married to a corrupt politician (“The Good Wife”), a reincarnated lawyer (“Drop Dead Diva”), military lawyers (“JAG”), a superstar lawyer who has nightmares about horses (“Damages”), a bowling-alley-based lawyer (“Ed”), zany nocturnal lawyers (“Night Court”) and a lawyer visited by hallucinations of George Michael (“Eli Stone”).

That’s not even getting into the “Law & Order” franchises. You see the problem.

It’s a challenge creating a lawyer show that stands out from the others, although it doesn’t look as though they’ll stop trying. David E. Kelley alone is responsible for “L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal,” “Girls Club,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal” and, lest we forget, the 1987 Judd Nelson movie “From the Hip.” A pilot called “Legally Mad” didn’t make it.

If there’s a lifetime achievement award for legal shows, Kelley has earned it. But he’s still plugging away, now gifting us with a shoe store-based patent-lawyer-turned-street-lawyer. Because we haven’t seen that before. The overqualified Kathy Bates stars as the bored but brilliant patent lawyer Harriet, who has a very bad day: She is 1) fired, 2) flattened by a man who tries to commit suicide by jumping off a building, and 3) sideswiped by a car. All this leads to the inevitable conclusion that she should set up shop in the ’hood, while her assistant (Brittany Snow) sells shoes on the side.

It’s not as fun as it sounds.

Kelley’s trademark whimsy feels awfully forced at this point, and Bates comes across as stiff and depressed (although that could have to do with her injuries). Harry stands up for the kind of people others give up on, and that’s a great message. It’s also a message that might be helpfully hammered home in endless speechifying. But why is it always the overprivileged white person saving the underclass? Could we mix in just a splash of ethnicity?

Kelley is starting to repeat himself. Paul McCrane (“ER”) plays a prosecutor so quirky that he says everything twice; he’s a dead ringer for Peter MacNicol’s character on “Ally McBeal.” Maybe they’re brothers?

Nathan Corddry is the best thing about the pilot, playing a hotshot lawyer who joins Harriet’s new law firm against her will. Corddry’s got a motormouth delivery that saves several scenes — but not enough.

I have more hope for the USA Network’s new show, “Fairly Legal.” It’s about a lawyer so frustrated by the system that she quits to become a mediator. A better title would have been “The Mediator,” but the industry has yet to heed my ideas about title reform.

Why does it work?

The show is original but not obnoxiously so. Heroine Kate is played by Sarah Shahi (“The L Word”), and she’s a real find. Imagine, if you will, an intellectual Eva Longoria. According to the Internet Movie DataBase, Shahi is a former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who majored in English and opera; she’s also a great-great-granddaughter of the 19th century Persian Shah Fath Ali Shah Qajar. All that eclectic energy comes across in her character. Kate may be easily distracted, but she’s determined to get the job done. Eventually.

Kate is called on to mediate arguments ranging from a botched marriage proposal to an international child custody battle. She’s not a know-it-all but has a knack for getting people to communicate. “Lawyers burn bridges and mediators build them,” she explains.

Kate is not exactly a stickler for the letter of the law. “I believe that laws are made by people, and people are often wrong,” she says.

I like the other characters in “Fairly Legal,” too, every last one of them. Ethan Embry plays Kate’s Mr. Mom brother; Virginia Williams is her loathed (but impeccably attired) stepmother; Gerald McRaney is a comforting presence as a judge and friend of Kate’s father. There’s potential everywhere you look.

I would watch an entire show based on Kate’s enterprising assistant Leonardo, played by Baron Vaughn. His prized possession is a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” watch, he’s forged contacts at the police department through Dungeons and Dragons, and he hates nature. I would hire him away in a second.

Maybe “Fairly Legal” works because it’s the opposite of a traditional lawyer show: Rather than fighting it out in court, Kate just wants everyone to get along. She’s not bound by legal technicalities, so there’s no red tape and lots of creativity. What a concept: taking a shortcut to justice.

If you’ve hit your David E. Kelley lawyer limit, “Fairly Legal” might be the dramatic departure you need. Give peace a chance.

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